Survival-horror game 'The Callisto Protocol' perfects the art of sound in dead space

Survival sci-fi game “The Callisto Protocol” is a gory, linear storytelling experience that rivals the atmosphere and tension building of beloved horror films.

Directed by Glen Schofield, co-creator of the “Dead Space” series, this spiritual successor is a passion project brought to life with the help of a sound and visuals team handpicked for their work on brutal, thrilling horror film classics like “Alien,” “It,” “Dawn of the Dead,” Friday the 13th,” hit TV show “The Walking Dead” and more.

The action starts with the crash landing of a spaceship co-piloted by protagonist Jacob Lee, who is rescued by local authorities on Jupiter's dead moon, Callisto, but immediately arrested for reasons unknown to the player. Now imprisoned in a maximum-security penitentiary, he meets and helps an equally mysterious fellow inmate also escape, who repays him with a compassion for a stranger that seems to not run out.

"The Callisto Protocol" protagonist Jacob Lee meets fellow Black Iron Prison inmate Elias Porter.
"The Callisto Protocol" protagonist Jacob Lee meets fellow Black Iron Prison inmate Elias Porter.

Striking Distance Studios’ newest title delivers on the visual expectations set by its trailer with incredibly realistic facial expressions, character models and settings, and it showcases how far computer graphics game engines have progressed for developers today.

But most beautiful is its mastering the art of sound.

Headphones are highly recommended

The snarling creature you hear around the next corner. The emotional voice acting. The ominous, screeching noises before an intense encounter (many of which were made by their “Apprehension Engine” instrument). It would be an injustice for the Foley artists, composers and overall sound team to not be recognized come awards season.

If you buy it, I highly recommend you play it with the best audio setup you have available because it certainly draws from thrillers to give players that feeling of helplessness and fear you would feel during times of tension building in the movie theater.

Limitations

As for its perceived limitations, noticeably absent from this review thus far is any mention of its gameplay mechanics.

In pursuit of a cinematic experience, some features gamers are used to have been sacrificed. The health bar, for instance, is displayed on the player’s actual body (similar to the “Dead Space” series), constantly moving with the action, rather than being conveniently viewable at a corner of the screen. Health bars also do not appear on enemies.

As for dodging, simply holding the movement joystick stick toward the left or right will have the player automatically evade attacks. With the game being structured for mainly up-close-and-personal combat, handling crowds of enemies can be awkward and difficult. (And the healing and weapon reload times seem painfully slow.)

I call these “perceived” limitations because its strictly linear storytelling and unskippable cutscenes (including its death animations), do successfully — albeit forcibly — present an immersive, cinematic experience in ways that status bars would take away from.

Two warnings before you buy it

First warning: if you are expecting the multi-monster mashing fluidity of “Doom Eternal” or the swift swapping between weapons of “The Last of Us,” you will be disappointed. You're given a firearm early in the game, as well as a gravity "GRP" glove for pulling and tossing creatures and objects. But the combat system focuses more on the intensity of the intimate fights with every major and even minor enemies, as opposed to quickly dispatching hordes of creatures.

Given that caveat, here is also where I will likely part from many reviewers in my advocating for experiencing it.

While there are minor adjustments I personally would suggest — perhaps the ability to skip a death animation you’ve already seen or assigning the dodge action to one of the right-hand thumb buttons for gamers still wanting the challenge — the game certainly delivers in what the creators intended: a playable, horror-filled, sci-fi cinematic experience.

Although it does sit awkwardly between the free movement, third-person shooter genre and choice-based interactive games, its generous checkpoints and automatic dodging system is evidence enough that it’s made for sci-fi horror film enthusiasts who would love to experience one through a game. Despite having no learning curve for mastering its combat mechanics, its incredibly detailed dismembering of enemies makes it thoroughly entertaining whether you're playing or watching someone else do it.

As for the second warning: I will again emphasize that this is a gory, sci-fi horror that is also a game.

It is not for children. Although the mature rating on games like “Elden Ring” are due to violence pushing it slightly over the edge of a teen rating, the depiction of violence and graphic imagery in “The Callisto Protocol” is still leagues above.

Upgrading weapons in "The Callisto Protocol."
Upgrading weapons in "The Callisto Protocol."

Before playing, I was surprised it was banned in Japan for being too violent — given the country's greenlight of a notoriously gory anime series like “Blood-C” — but shortly after playing the demo, I understood why. It takes inspiration, directly and indirectly, from horror and thriller films mentioned previously, as well as others like “Hostel” when attempting to shock and dismay the player. So be warned.

What makes a classic horror film?

Jump scares. Plot twists. Dead things that for some reason don’t stay dead. The masterful mixing of visuals and audio — especially audio — to suck the viewer into the protagonist’s shoes and give an impending sense of actual danger from the comfort of their living room.

That’s exactly what “The Callisto Protocol” did to this reviewer.

It is definitely an experience worth trying without being spoiled by online walkthroughs. (And if its limited gameplay mechanics are a hindrance, I still recommend to try it when it goes on sale.)

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.